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What practices and ideologies support small-scale multilingualism? A case study of Warruwi Community, northern Australia

  • Ruth Singer ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Salome Harris


At Warruwi, a remote Australian Indigenous community, people use a range of Indigenous languages on a daily basis. Adults speak three to eight Indigenous languages and these high levels of multilingualism are out of step with current trends which see most Australian Indigenous communities shifting to a single variety be it a variety of English, a contact variety or a traditional Indigenous language. The three Indigenous languages most widely spoken at Warruwi are quite dissimilar as they belong to separate language families. This article discusses three characteristics of language use at Warruwi that are likely to play a role in supporting the levels of multilingualism found there: the diversity of individual linguistic repertoires, receptive multilingual practices whereby interlocutors address one another in different languages and language ideologies that are quite different to those found elsewhere. Characteristics of multilingualism at Warruwi are compared with those reported for other communities with small-scale multilingualism. Francois’ (2012) concept of egalitarian multilingualism is used as a starting point for the exploration of models of small-scale multilingualism.


We would like to thank the people whose language use and ideas about language use at Warruwi are presented in this paper, particularly Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Richard Dhaŋalaŋal. Ruth Singer would also like to thank all the elders at Warruwi for their support for her research over the years. Janet Mardbinda and Isabel O’Keeffe helped to annotate the recordings and also shared their ideas on language use. Linguists Brigitta Busch, Friederike Lüpke, Jill Vaughan and Cara Penry-Williams gave useful feedback. Thanks very much to Janet Fletcher for supporting this research in its early stages. Financial support for this research has come from the Australian Research Council, the University of Melbourne and the Arts Faculty, University of Melbourne. Ongoing research on this topic is funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award “What makes a multilingual community? The life of languages at Warruwi community” (2014–2017).

Data storage: The recordings discussed in this article and their transcriptions are archived with the PARADISEC digital archive and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, Australia.


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